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Indestructible Morocco, the World Cup’s darling, moves on to the semis

Morocco beat Portugal on Saturday in Qatar. (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)
7 min

DOHA, Qatar — With the indestructible will of its defense and the inconceivable din of its fans, Morocco achieved World Cup history Saturday night, venturing further into the hard, hard knockout brackets than any African nation before. It added Portugal to the list of European gentry it has upended here, and it rode a 1-0 showcase of its mighty guts through a taut quarterfinal and clear to the final four.

There, it will face defending champion France, and there, the Moroccan fans who have showered goose bumps upon this first World Cup in the Arab world might boost their volume yet further, even if there’s not all that much further left. Upon this joyride of a fourth African quarterfinalist ever and now first semifinalist, non-Moroccan Arabs and Africans have piggybacked with full hearts of support, even if any inkling of magic fizzles when you consider nobody here has scored on Morocco in five games — unless you count that harmless own goal Morocco doled Canada in group play.

“It’s no miracle,” Morocco Manager Walid Regragui said, even if it might feel like one.

“Pinch me,” a reporter said to goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, or Bono, whose reply included, “Pinch me.”

“We are now becoming the team that everyone loves in this World Cup,” Regragui said, “because we are showing that you can succeed even if you don’t have as much talent, as much quality, as much money.”

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“We’re here to change the mentality,” said the 31-year-old Bono, the Hercules of a goalkeeper whose 6-foot-5 frame has helped make the Moroccan goalmouths seem walled. “With this feeling of inferiority, we need to get rid of it. Moroccan players are apt to compete with anybody in the world,” and future generations will notice. “When someone talks of a Moroccan player, they know now they can play at the highest level of performance.”

“It’s going to be tough to beat us,” Regragui concluded, having said already, “I think we are the best in terms of our desire and our passion and our industry.”

This 47-year-old manager, a former Morocco defender who took the job only Aug. 31, had a fresh and ironclad point there. His Atlas Lions have controlled the fields of play all World Cup long, and then it has stormed those fields with unstoppable glee.

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That happened again at Al Thumama Stadium on Saturday night when the final whistle finally blew and Moroccan players raced off the bench to find teammates either splayed with exhaustion or available to hug. Then they all bowed to their fans and adopted a sujud posture and posed for a team picture, right in front of the goal Bono had protected against the waves of Portuguese skill. That skill fetched six goals against Switzerland in the previous round, and that skill included that of Cristiano Ronaldo, the 37-year-old global star who came on in the 51st minute in his second straight non-start and produced several of the goal-ward dashes long since frightening to opposing fans.

He appeared to cry in the tunnel on the way out, departing the World Cup after five appearances stretched from 2006 through 2022, with one semifinal showing in 2006. “If there were two persons that are the most upset about the game,” Portugal Manager Fernando Santos said, “it is Cristiano Ronaldo and myself.”

The World Cup quarter finals kicked off on Dec. 9 in Qatar, as eight teams went head to head to see who will advance to the next round. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Portuguese fancied themselves potential winners of the whole deal here, and their 6-1 win over Switzerland in the round of 16 with a hat trick from 21-year-old Gonçalo Ramos had not deterred them in this thought. Yet just like Belgium and Spain before them, they lost to Morocco, and just like semifinalist Croatia in group play, they had not scored. “And sometimes in football,” Santos said, “we also have to have a bit of luck, and that was not the case.”

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If a bit of luck did alight, it went the other way, in the 42nd minute, when Morocco conducted a good possession with multiple touches that went through the tireless Azzedine Ounahi atop the box and found their way to Yahya Attiat Allah, who took the ball and calmed it.

Attiat Allah then sent the thing up and curling into the middle of the box, where unheralded Youssef en-Nesyri, who is a teammate of Bono’s for Sevilla in Spain, seemed to rise and rise and rise. The header he found up there also found goalkeeper Diogo Costa out of position, then bounced once on its way into the middle of the goal.

It gave him a second goal at this World Cup and upheld a crucial distinction of Regragui: the capacity to infuse belief and to scuttle perceived inferiorities. “I’ve always believed in Youssef,” Regragui said of the striker. “And even Moroccan journalists criticized me” — no way! — “when I defended him and said he was going to be in my World Cup squad.”

Now all the Moroccans in the stands and the 36.8 million at home could see en-Nesyri light as he punted the ball upward in joy and ensured these Africans might forge a path less complicated.

Their three African predecessors in quarterfinals — Cameroon in 1990, Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 — all went to extra time before their closing defeats riddled with excruciation. Cameroon in 1990 lost, 3-2, to England after extra time on Gary Lineker’s second penalty of the match in the 105th minute; Senegal in 2002 lost, 1-0, to Turkey on substitute Ilhan Mansiz’s goal in the 94th minute; and Ghana in 2010 had on penalties through infamous cheating when Uruguay’s Luis Suarez intentionally hand-balled a certain goal in the closing strains of play and Ghana missed the ensuing kick.

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Those ends lent fuel to the frenzy of a Saturday night even before kickoff. Freelance vendors picked up on the sensation and arrived with clusters of Moroccan flags to sell. Ticketless fans who wished to join the joy enlarged the throngs, which seemed to complicate the management of the stadium passageways. Police hired from all over the region for the event did a yeoman’s job in locking their arms and carefully controlling the flow of the throngs passing from the parking lot to the footbridge over the highway to the stadium to prevent overcrowding upon that long and winding bridge.

The halting flow of it did leave other throngs of fans still outside when the match began in a stadium with swaths of empty red and green seats.

The Moroccan national anthem boomed and stirred as usual, even with the absences of those still trying to enter. Eventually they did, and the seats filled. The match barely had begun when Portugal had possession and Moroccan fans, a majority a notch beyond overwhelming, began a jeering of that possession, a tactic left over from the goalless win with penalty kicks against Spain. It carried through Portugal’s major threat in the fifth minute, when Bono lunged to his left to save Joao Felix’s well-aimed header.

The noise sustained itself through four or five further threats, such as Portugal hitting a crossbar late in the first half, such as when Portugal went fervently goal-hunting to start the second, and such as Ronaldo dashing forth late in the second, particularly on a trademark run in the first minute of stoppage time that wound up with a ball rocketed right to Bono. It greeted the clearances of the starting defenders Achraf Hakimi (who plays for Paris Saint-Germain), Romain Saiss (of Besiktas in Turkey), Jawad El Yamiq (Real Valladolid in Spain) and Attiat Allah (Wydad AC in Casablanca, where Regragui previously coached).

Then it swarmed over each clearance in the unbearable eight minutes the referee tacked on the end, until the whistle blew and a milestone hit and Regragui cried as he never does and compared his side to one Rocky Balboa.

“I think we are the ‘Rocky’ of this World Cup,” he said.

Hell, with that defense, maybe they’re the Apollo Creed.

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.